Parts of the Northwest Territories were settled some 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, shortly after the end of the ice age according to archaeologists, who are adding more information to the records each year.
Around the time of first settlement, research suggests, there were giant beavers and mammoths roaming the northern plains. Giant beavers figure in the oral history of the Dene, whose great leader Yamoria killed three beavers and nailed their hides to Bear Rock at the mouth of the Great Bear River.
Devonian era fossils (approximately 400 million years ago) are commonly found in limestone cliffs that formed under prehistoric seas that once covered parts of the Northwest Territories. The Hay River area, Sambaa Deh Park and Norman Wells are good spots to look for fossils.
Salt is another deposit from the Devonian era. The Salt Plains in Wood Buffalo National Park are unique in Canada and constantly evolving. Spring water dissolves ancient salt beds below ground and brings the salt to the surface. In some locations, the salt forms mounds up to two metres high, and attracts wildlife. Salt was harvested in the past by Aboriginal people, the Hudson's Bay Company and the Roman Catholic mission at Fort Smith.
The earliest visitor who left a record is Samuel Hearne, of the Hudson's Bay Company, who travelled with the Dene chief Matonabbee. Hearne mentions what must be Great Slave Lake on his epic walk across the north, circa 1770. Cuthbert Grant and Laurent LeRoux travelled north and built a post to trade for furs near Fort Resolution in 1786. A few years later, in 1789, Alexander Mackenzie, representing Montreal merchants, traveled Dehcho, the river now called Mackenzie. His explorations were based on maps developed by Peter Pond, who had recorded information he learned from the Dene about the rivers and lakes of the Mackenzie valley.
The Northwest Company of Montreal established the first series of posts in the Mackenzie region in the early 1800s, among them Fort of the Forks, Fort Liard, Fort Norman, Fort Franklin, and Fort Good Hope. After several trading skirmishes with the British-based Hudson's Bay Company, the two companies amalgamated in 1821, and HBC factor Sir George Simpson and his wife took up residence at a former Northwest Company site, now called Fort Simpson. There are few visible remains of this era in the Mackenzie Valley, though many of the original post names survive. The Hudson's Bay Company charter included northern Canada, and this huge area in turn was passed on to Canada in 1870.
Sir John Franklin
Although he gained infamy in Northwest Passage history, Sir John first blundered on the mainland, exploring the barrenlands north of Yellowknife. In 1820 he headed up the Yellowknife River to Winter Lake, and explored part of the Arctic coast the following spring. He returned too late in the autumn for safety and lost ten men on the expedition. On his second, and more successful expedition, Franklin wintered at the old Northwest Company post on Great Bear Lake (renamed in his honour, and now called Deline) where he recorded a game of hurley on skates (the first recorded game of ice hockey in North America). Next spring he explored the northern coast of Alaska, while Dr. John Richardson explored the present Northwest Territories coastline.
Where the traders went, the churches followed. One of the most famous of these religious explorers was Father Emile Petitot, who left an invaluable record of the lives and languages of Aboriginal people in the Northwest Territories. He traveled extensively with the Dene in the Mackenzie Valley, and as far north as the land of the Gwich'in. He settled for a time in the late 1860s at Fort Good Hope where he had a hand in building and decorating Our Lady of Good Hope. This glorious little church is now a treasured National Historic Site. Petitot published his memoirs when he returned to France. The Anglican Church also dispatched men of great stamina to the north. Their stories too are part of the heritage of several communities. Although Christianity became more and more dominant, traditional Dene and Inuit beliefs continued to be observed in many communities, and have helped to sustain Aboriginal cultures.
The route to the Northwest Territories, for almost 200 years, was by water via the Athabasca and Slave Rivers, interrupted by the Slave River Rapids, requiring a 25 kilometre portage. At the northern end of the portage, Fort Smith took shape with the establishment of a Roman Catholic mission in the 1870s and subsequent additions of a Hudson's Bay post and North-West Mounted Police post by 1915. The turbulent story of Fort Smith, once the capital of the Northwest Territories, is preserved in a heritage park, and the Northern Life Museum.
The Canadian Arctic Expedition
From 1913 to 1918, the Canadian Arctic Expedition conducted a major scientific expedition in northern Canada. Starting in Alaska, they travelled east, exploring the Arctic islands and the Arctic coast, recording for the first time in photographs and on film the people and resources of Canada's Arctic.
Gold, Oil, Radium and Treaties
Reports filtering back to Ottawa in the 1890s about the potential for petroleum discoveries in the southern Mackenzie region had an impact on the Canadian Government's determination to negotiate treaties with northern peoples. Two treaties involve Northwest Territories residents, one coinciding with the Klondike gold rush in 1899, and one in 1921. They set out criteria for federal intervention in the lives of northern people. This foresight proved beneficial for Canada, as royalties from the subsequent discovery of the Norman Wells oilfield (1921) the radium mines at Great Bear Lake (1929), gold at Yellowknife (1934) and diamond mines on the barrenlands (1998) have enriched the national treasury for close to 100 years.
A highway to Hay River and on to Yellowknife ended the era of water travel on the Slave River. The highway was started in the 1950s and completed in 1961. The NWT government set up shop in Yellowknife in 1967. The first fully elected NWT legislative assembly took office in 1975 to govern all of the Canadian north east of the Yukon. The Dempster Highway, from Dawson City, Yukon, to Inuvik at the mouth of the Mackenzie River, was completed in 1979. In 1984, the Inuvialuit of the Western Arctic signed the first Aboriginal Land Claim in the North. Since that time, the Gwich'in, Sahtu and Tlicho have also signed agreements with the Government of Canada, in effect becoming regional governments in the Northwest Territories. The Nunavut Agreement of 1999 removed the eastern Arctic from the Northwest Territories and reduced the Territory in size by more than half. Today, as the potential for mining and oil and gas development continue to attract attention, the Government of the Northwest Territories is working to gain control over the resources and responsibilities assumed by the federal government close to 100 years ago.